Depending on where in the world you are, your nation may be celebrating Veterans Day, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day today (or yesterday, for those living IN THE FUTURE); I happen to be in the United States at the moment, where we are observing Veterans Day.
There’s a thing I notice, in narratives about veterans. Only certain people are depicted as veterans of military service, while others tend to be erased. Going on statistics for just one service branch (warning, .pdf), the United States Army, I can tell you that 17.2% of the commissioned officers serving are women. 20.9% of enlisted people on active duty are Black. 2.1% of the Army National Guard is Asian.
But I keep coming back to the women, because when I see images meant to evoke military service and veterans, I see a sea of men. I come from a military family, a mixture of men and women (primarily Navy), and to me, the face of the military is not a white man. Yet, to many, it is; take, for example, the Facebook meme making the rounds right now encouraging people to replace their profile pictures with the face of a veteran. I know several women veterans who have received messages about this meme.
They were not amused.
Women serve. Women are serving. Women have served. Throughout history.
And women become disabled as a result of their military service.
In the past week, National Public Radio has reported on two different issues facing women veterans, particularly disabled women, both illustrating the fact that the Veterans Administration is not serving our women veterans adequately.
Women veterans experience psychological trauma and physical trauma. In addition to the signature tramautic brain injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan, one in five military women faces sexual assault and many women veterans are also coming home with mental illnesses. Skyrocketing numbers of women veterans are homeless and struggling on inadequate medical care and benefits. Many VA centres don’t provide women’s health care services and there are tremendous disparities in health care for women in the military as well as veterans.
But, the military, and the veterans system, was originally built by and for men. That legacy frustrates Kim Rushing, a 20-year veteran of the Navy. From her wheelchair, she scoffs at tables piled with olive drab long johns.
“All this stuff, is all men’s stuff,” she says. “I’m a woman and I served my country, and that’s what I get, is men’s stuff.” (‘Veterans Affairs Scrambles To Serve Female Veterans‘)
Rushing isn’t alone. Women, and their service, are erased and continue to be erased. Because women aren’t officially allowed to serve in combat positions, they aren’t eligible for combat medals, even when they are in combat, for example. But this is about more than medals. This is about a fundamental breakdown in the health care system for female veterans, especially women who are now disabled and served in the military with the understanding that the military would take care of them; this is the exchange, for service, to be provided with care.
Ending up on the streets is a common fate for veterans due to lack of support, and it’s especially stark for women.
Over the past decade, the number of female veterans who have become homeless has nearly doubled to roughly 6,500, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of them are younger than 35. (‘No Place To Call Home For Many Female Veterans‘)
Many of these women also have mental illnesses, a legacy of their military service. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is notoriously underdiagnosed in women, which means that homeless women veterans may also be living without diagnoses and access to medical treatment that meets their needs. This is a travesty.
Writing on this ain’t livin’ today, I said:
I never knew my grandfather. I will never know his war stories because he never told them. I don’t need to know them; I don’t need to know anyone’s war stories, I don’t need to know what people saw and did to honour them. I don’t need to know someone’s politics, I don’t need to know why someone joined the military, I don’t need to know what people think about what they did in the course of their military service. None of this information is my business or is relevant to my own experiences and in this country, where the experiences of others are asserted as property by people who have not lived them, this attitude seems to upset or disturb people, that some things are private and demands to lay them out for inspection are not welcome.
This I do know: That women who have served in the United States military are not getting the things they were promised in exchange for their service. That women serving in the military now face restrictions to access for basic medical care. And that I don’t need to know their names or their stories to know that this is wrong.
Veterans Day here in the United States serves as a reminder to thank all those who served, like Ouyang Dan, who writes here, those who are serving, those who gave their lives in service, although of course you can thank a veteran any time.
It’s, for me, also a reminder that my work, of centreing marginalised experiences; refusing to allow people who experience oppression to be erased; and pushing for equal access in all areas of life for all of us, is never done.